Fans of Westerns in the 1960s were absolutely spoiled thanks to two competing powerhouses: Bonanza and Gunsmoke. While Gunsmoke might hold the record for the longest-running Western, Bonanza isn’t far behind, with an impressive 14 seasons and over 400 episodes —plus a few TV movies, just to cap it off.
Because Bonanza ran for so long, there was plenty happening behind the scenes that even the most hardcore fans don’t know about.
If you’ve watched any show from the 60s, you know that they didn’t always portray TV fathers in the best light. David Dortort, the creator and producer of the show, decided that he wanted to flesh out Ben Cartwright’s character and show a father who could be a role model. He felt that 30-minute episodes simply didn’t give him enough time to do so.
As a result, he fought for hour-long episodes and was proved wise in his choice; Cartwright’s relationship with his son became a central reason for the show’s popularity.
Despite the name, Michael Landon disliked that his character, Little Joe, was significantly shorter than the other Cartwrights. In real life, Landon was several inches shorter than the other actors, who all stood around six feet tall. To make up for the height difference, he wore four-inch lifts or platform shoes to bring him up to 6’1”.
He kept using this trick even when he moved on from Bonanza and joined other projects.
Viewers who happen to be paying close attention to the costuming might notice that the characters never change clothes. Because Bonanza was already one of the most expensive productions of its day, the crew needed to cut costs where they could. By using the same costumes each episode, they could insert stock footage where necessary and keep costs low.
It’s no secret that some actors simply grow to dislike working on the same show after so many years. Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright, felt as if the show wasn’t intelligent enough for him and left after six seasons. After he quit, the remaining Cartwright actors split his salary evenly between themselves.
Many of the Bonanza actors’ families carried the love of Westerns. The Landon family has appeared in a number of Westerns after Michael Landon made his name on Bonanza. Of his nine kids, several had small roles in Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. Michael Landon Jr. wrote for When Calls the Heart, a long-running Western, while Jen Landon recently became a fan favorite by playing Teeter in the modern Western, Yellowstone.The Russell family also made many Western appearances. Bing played Clem Foster on Bonanza and starred in several other works in the genre. His son, Kurt Russell, has many Westerns on his resume, including The Hateful Eight and Bone Tomahawk. Even Wyatt Russel, Bing’s grandson, carries the legacy by starring in Cowboys & Aliens and The Good Lord Bird.
Victor Sen Yung, who famously played the Cartwright family’s chef, Hop Sing, was a beloved character actor who appeared on many programs over the years. In a case of art imitating life, he was also an accomplished chef, just like his Bonanza character.
He popped up on numerous cooking shows and shared many tips for Cantonese cooking. He even released a cookbook, Victor Sen Yung’s Great Wok Cookbook, which contained over 200 recipes.
Fans adored Adam Cartwright and it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the role. However, Pernell Roberts wasn’t the first choice for the eldest brother. NBC originally wanted Guy Williams to play Adam and even offered him the role. However, he declined after accepting the title role of Zorro.
Williams did eventually play a Cartwright when he guest-starred as a cousin, Will Cartwright, for five episodes.
After airing for 14 seasons, some of the cast began to show their age. Several of the show’s leading men started balding in the show's later seasons. Dan Blocker, who played Hoss, was the first to start wearing hairpieces, but the other Cartwrights followed soon after.
The notable exception, of course, is Michael Landon. He kept his full head of wavy locks for the show’s full run, though he did dye it to hide some of his gray.
While they aired at the same time, Star Trek and Bonanza couldn’t have been more different in themes, plot, or setting. However, the shows’ cast lists did share many names. For example, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, and James Doohan all made guest appearances on Bonanza over the years.
David Canary, known for playing Candy Canaday on Bonanza, was considered as a replacement for Leonard Nimoy on Star Trek when Nimoy was in a contract dispute with NBC.
Despite being one of the younger actors on the set, Michael Landon wasn’t afraid to make his voice known. He would regularly request reshoots to make sure everything was perfect. Toward the end of the show’s run, Landon also took on more responsibilities behind the camera and continued his perfectionist habits. During the last five seasons, he wrote and directed many of the episodes.
According to other cast and crew members, he would often interrupt takes and stop filming to discuss characters, scripts, and other topics. All the stopping and starting became very tiresome for the rest of the crew. He also wasn’t afraid to fight the network to keep the show on the right path.
Eric "Hoss" Cartwright was often the source of many jokes and buffoonery, but he was always reliable when it came down to it. Dan Blocker, who played Hoss, was just as tough as his character.
During filming, Blocker's horse threw him to the ground, snapping his collarbone. Rather than interrupting the shoot, Blocker simply set his bone himself and continued filming. Once filming wrapped, he sought medical attention and spent six weeks recovering.
While Bonanza was airing, two of the biggest names in music tuned in every week. Both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were massive fans of the show. Cash even became the first artist to record a cover of the iconic Bonanza theme song. This inspired many other artists to also release versions of the song, though The King, despite his love of the show, was an exception.
Reruns are nothing new, but usually, the name of the show doesn't change. Bonanza is a unique exception. When the show was re-aired in 1972, the network decided to rename it after the ranch where the show took place, Ponderosa. Once the show was cancelled, though, reruns took the original name once again.
To make things more confusing, Ponderosa is also the name of a short-lived prequel that aired from 2001 to 2002.
Bonanza's influence was so great that it inspired two separate restaurant chains. In keeping with the show's themes and style, both were steakhouses. Dan Blocker launched the Bonanza Steakhouse chain in 1963. Just two years later, Dan Laseter and several other businessmen founded the Ponderosa Steakhouse.
These restaurants competed for many years, before ultimately coming together after the Metromedia Restaurant Group bought both chains.
In its earliest seasons, Bonanza had a tough time finding its footing. Ratings were low and many people predicted that NBC would cancel the show. However, Bonanza was one of the first shows to air in color. NBC's parent company, Radio Corporation of America, was a major manufacturer of color TV sets and was the primary sponsor of the show's initial two seasons.
After it received a new time slot, Bonanza exploded in popularity and was a major factor in many households' decisions to buy color TVs.
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